If nothing else, Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon raises many interesting questions about the nature of the auteur theory and film canons in general. Rohmer is a certified auteur, and a world master. He has made many, many good films and a few great ones, especially when adding entries to his three celebrated series: "Six Moral Tales" (in the 1960s and 1970s), "Comedies and Proverbs" (six films in the 1980s) and "Tales of the Four Seasons" (in the 1990s).
These films, which often have a relaxed, al fresco quality, mainly focus on young, smart, attractive contemporary French people who talk a lot get themselves into romantic situations. When he departs from this successful formula, as with his last two films, The Lady and the Duke (2001) and Triple Agent (2004), the results are considerably less. So when a filmmaker like Rohmer makes something as blatantly, painfully awful as The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, it brings such ideas into sharp relief.
Given Rohmer's status, should we spend extra time scrutinizing this turkey for something hidden, something worthwhile that perhaps escaped our gaze? Moreover, shouldn't filmmakers be allowed to depart from a successful formula? For example, Charlie Chaplin established himself as a master comedian, and when he attempted a drama, A Woman of Paris (1923), audiences responded with anger, boredom and indifference.
But to consider this a bad film presupposes that we, the audience, have identified and solidified who this filmmaker is and who they are not. In The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, which had its West Coast premiere at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, Rohmer has one or two vague things to say about the interchangeable nature of boys and girls (one of his mid-1980s titles was Boyfriends and Girlfriends), but regardless of who he is, his way of saying it is positively inane.
Adapted from a novel by Honoré d'Urfé, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon takes place in the 17th century among a group of male and female shepherds. The hero, Celadon (Andy Gillet) loves the heroine Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) and she loves him back. But because of bad blood between their families, their love is not socially acceptable.
At a feast, Celadon pretends to kiss another girl to allay suspicion, but Astrea takes his charade seriously and accuses him of cheating. He practically withers from despair and jumps in the river to kill himself. It's at this point that we begin to realize that the long-haired, pretty-faced Celadon, who wears a kind of knee-length dress, is actually more of a girl than a boy. (A passive, helpless girl at that.) He spends the film whimpering, whining, fretting and sulking. The only thing missing is a scene of him weeping while watching "Oprah" and asking someone to open a tight jar lid for him.
Needless to say, he survives his pathetic suicide; a trio of nymphs (!) rescues him and nurses him back to health. One of the nymphs falls for him, but he rebuffs her. He instead escapes to the woods where he proceeds to sulk. (Since Astrea told him she never wanted to see him again, he decides to remain true to her wishes. Way to be a man!) He even builds a shrine to her. (For some reason, he has a color photograph of her in a locket. What did he do? Build a camera out of straw?)
Another of the nymphs has an uncle, a druid, who gets the idea to disguise Celadon as his own daughter, so that he can see Astrea again. Meanwhile, Astrea weeps over her error and her friends talk a lot about the nature of love. One guy, who also wears a dress, talks about being "one" with his girlfriend. Another guy, who bugs out his eyes and cackles while reading his dialogue (and grins maniacally, Harpo Marx-style, when silent), claims that to love a number of women makes one happier. Could Celadon have found his feminine side throughout the course of the film? Not likely, since he's pretty girly throughout. Is he "at one" with Astrea? Once again, this is something that is never in doubt.
The main trouble is that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon should have depended on grand passions and sweeping gestures; everyone should be swooning instead of talking about and rationalizing their love. Rohmer's usual method just simply doesn't work with this fluffy costume/period material. He's a modern filmmaker, concerned with the minutiae of modern relationships, such as the conundrum of Claire's Knee (1970): a man on the verge of marriage obsesses about caressing a younger woman's knee. Should he, or shouldn't he? Or Chloe in the Afternoon (1972): does having a late lunch several times with a sexy woman constitute an affair?
Rohmer can usually make an entire film out of something small, some simple, but ultimately complicated romantic tangle. And yes, Rohmer should be allowed to try different things. But trying to intellectually justify a man not returning to his lover after a life-or-death ordeal just because she shouted at him very simply doesn't work.